Shop Smart…Shop S Mart

This week Jen over at Sprite’s Keeper is studying for a big test and rerunning a Spin Cycle topic from last year.  Which is marvelous – it gives me an opportunity to re-post what I wrote for that topic.

Because saving money never goes out of style, y’all.

This week’s Spin Cycle is a subject I know quite a bit about, actually.  When my older kids, now 25 and 22, were growing up, to say I was on a fixed budget is something of an understatement; I was the Queen of the Penny Pinchers.  We didn’t have a car until Darling Daughter was a freshman in high school and either walked or took public transportation everywhere (oh, to have the figure now that I had then…).  When The Young One was a baby, his father and I worked different shifts to save on daycare costs.  And to be perfectly frank, the house I live in now is the first house I’ve ever actually owned.  We did a lot of “hand to mouth” existing, for a lot of years, and without government assistance.

So I can give you a lot of advice, not on how to save money (because I never saved a red cent until the last 10 years or so), but how not to spend it (simply because I didn’t have it to spend).  I could quote you line and verse about swallowing your pride and shopping thrift stores, taking public transportation when and where you can, clipping coupons (although I was never much of a coupon-clipper, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment), shopping sales, etc. but there’s already plenty of advice out there already for that.  Besides, this is my blog – what else do you expect me to talk about?

After housing, a family’s largest expense is often food.  It is estimated that the average family spends approximately 15% – 20% of it’s income on food – that’s really mind-boggling when you think about it.  So while you may not be able to do much about your mortgage or car payments, you can do something about the amount of money you spend to feed your family.

Tip #1 – Probably the most important tip I can give you:  STOP EATING OUT.  Even today, when I have more discretionary income than I’ve ever had in my life, we eat out on the average of once a month.  Yes – once a month.  This has never been hard for me, for we never ate out when I was growing up or raising my older kids; we simply couldn’t afford it.  But a lot of Americans eat out several times a week, simply out of convenience, and did you know that it is cheaper to make your own cheeseburger than to eat a 99-cent take-out burger?

Makes you think, doesn’t it?  Don’t eat out, and don’t eat at fast food restaurants at all (your arteries will thank you, if nothing else).  Save restaurants for special occasions.  Not only will you save money, you’ll find you enjoy it more.

Tip #2 – Probably the second most important tip I can give you:  LEARN TO COOK.  You don’t have to be Julia Child, or even Bobby Flay, just learn the basics.  I know it’s easy for me to proselytize about this because I know how to cook and enjoy it, but you truly don’t have to be a gourmet to cook great meals for your family.  In all honesty, the dishes our grown kids love the most are the simple ones that can be prepared on a tight budget.  You’d be better off investing in a crock pot, a food processor and a couple of cook books than eating out 3 or 4 times a week.

Tip #3CONVENIENCE FOODS ARE NOT NECESSARILY YOUR FRIEND.  Until my first husband and I had our first apartment, I’d never eaten potatoes or rice that weren’t “instant” – my mother considered them miracle foods.  When I had a family of my own, however, I quickly realized that I could get as much as 4 – 6 times  the amount of servings out of “raw” foods (i.e. raw potatoes and slow cooking rice) for the same price as 1 serving of the “instant” or “convenience” and that the time savings was NOT worth the extra cost.  For example, I can make four servings of plain white steamed rice that will take 15 mintes, for the cost of 1 serving of Minute Rice at 5 minutes.  Think about that for a minute – is the world going to end if you serve dinner at 7:15 as oppsed to 7?

Tip #4STORE BRANDS ARE YOUR FRIENDS.  Is your 6-year-old going to be able to tell the difference between Lucky Charms and the store brand of marshmallow cereal?  There can be as much as a $2 – $3 per package difference, and that can add up.  For that matter, can you tell the difference between a can of Green Giant green beans and a can of Top Choice?

It ALL adds up – buy the store brand.  Which brings me to my next point…

Tip #5MAKE SURE YOUR COUPONS ARE A REAL VALUE.  The vast majority of coupons you find in the Sunday paper or the weekly circular are for items that are really expensive – a lot of the time  you can purchase the store brand less expensively than you can the name brand, even with a coupon.  Even then, make sure it is something you really need and can’t make from scratch more cheaply, no matter what the brand is.

Tip #6UTILIZE YOUR LEFTOVERS.  You can eat leftovers for pennies on the dollar when compared to eating even a fast food value meal.  If you find a roast for half price at the grocery store, you can make it for dinner in the crock pot on Monday night, have chopped beef sandwiches for lunch on Tuesday, then make a stroganoff casserole with what’s left using cheap noodles, cream of mushroom soup and milk for dinner on Thursday night.  Even if you pay $4 a pound for a 3-pound roast, that’s a pretty damn good deal – 3 meals for 3 -4 people for $12?  You can’t beat that with a stick.  All it takes is a little forethought.

So there you have it – 6 tried and true tips for saving money on your grocery bills.  Research on the interent will render even more help; all you have to do is look.  And check back here every now and then – I have money saving yet tasty recipes out the wazoo…even if they do require more than four ingredients.  :P

Money in the Bank #1…Oh, and Chocolate Souffle

Piggy BankThe wise and venerable Smart Mouth Broad has tasked our dear interwebz with a weekly feature alá the Spin Cycle – let’s all get together and share ways to save money.  Voila – we give you Money in the Bank.

I think it’s a dandy idea.  So here I am.  Oh, and looky here – I’ve brought my soap box along for the ride, too.

Ahem.  Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day*.  Beloved has already fulfilled his obligation showered me with lovely gifts for this superfluous “holiday” with this and this, reasoning (and rightly so) that he would spend that much on flowers and candy – things that wouldn’t last.  Ahhhh – now there’s a thought!

Money in the Bank Tip #1 for Valentine’s Day: Gentlemen, if you’re going to spend money, buy something that she’ll be able to keep for longer than a few days.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, just thoughtful (the key word here being “thoughtful”).  That being said, you should pay close attention to the first sentence of the next paragraph…

My good friend Twenty Four at Heart observed in her creatively-named Valentine’s Day post “Cupid is an Asshole” that, “Quite honestly, the most romantic meal in the world would be if a man put the effort into making a candlelit dinner for two at home.”  Since I can be reasonably sure that isn’t going to happen and since I also believe I’ve mentioned that Beloved is notoriously hard to buy for, I’m taking the easy way out:  I’m making dinner, including his favorite dessert, and then will pull some lingerie out of mothballs and spend the rest of the evening giving various parts of his body various massages.  Ahhhh – another thought!

Money in the Bank Tip #2 for Valentine’s Day: Ladies, you know what he wants.  YOU KNOW WHAT HE WANTS.  Give it to him!  Put some thought into it!  Put some effort into it!  You know that somewhere in your closet or dresser is something lacy or slinky that you haven’t worn in so long he’s forgotten all about it (although, granted, not as well as you may have).  Get it out.  Put it on.  It will make him happy and won’t cost you a red cent.  And you never know – you may end up enjoying it too.

So, there you go – two very sound pieces of advice for not only saving money, but surviving Valentine’s Day.  And you thought I couldn’t multitask.

Oh, and the Chocolate Soufflé in the title?  Beloved’s favorite dessert.  Here’s the recipe, as my Valentine’s Day gift to you, dear interwebz.  While it’s best started the evening (or at least several hours) before you plan to bake it, it is absurdly easy to make.  And it’s not expensive, either.  Serve it with some good vanilla ice cream – this is one of those gooey, intensely chocolate affairs.

Note: While the original recipe calls for this to be baked in small, individual springform rings, I bake it in a pie plate or small soufflé dish and serve it from there.  Not quite as elegant a presentation, but it is easier and it certainly doesn’t detract from the taste.

Chocolate Soufflé

Serves 4, or Beloved

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

3/4 cup sugar

1 3/4 tablespoons cornstarch

2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks

In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and chocolate.  Set aside.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk the sugar and cornstarch together.  In another small bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolks together.  Whisk the melted butter/chocolate mixture into the sugar/cornstarch mixture, combining thoroughly.  Stir in the eggs, just until smooth.  Refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

Preheat oven to 400° F.  Butter a 9″ pie plate or small soufflé dish well.  Spread the chocolate mixture in the dish, and bake in the top half of the oven for 20 – 25 minutes.

Serve immediately.

*Re-reading this post, it sounds rather snarky.  I didn’t mean for it to, but I don’t have the time/inclination to re-write it.  I love you dear, and I love the figurines.  They look so nice in my new curio.

Ryan’s Late Night Party – A Guest Blog

Trina is one of my oldest and dearest friends; we’ve known each other since the 8th grade. She is now the single mother of 2 teenagers. Her son is Autistic, but apparently still a 16 year old boy. She emailed this to me today and I asked her if I could post it on my blog; she has graciously permitted me to do so.

I was a loyal fan of Direct TV for the past three years, but I decided to change to Charter Cable because they offered a bundle of cable, telephone and internet that would save me about $75 each month. I basically got everything I had with Direct TV, including a DVR and a cable box in each room. My monthly bill will be roughly $200, or so they told me. Well, I got my first bill this Saturday and it was for $669.86. I almost choked when I saw the price, and knew right away that something was wrong.

I waited until Monday afternoon to call the cable company to try to figure out why my bill was $400 over what they quoted me. As the lady was checking into my account, I started looking at the details of the bill:

Previous Balance: $219.95 (installation charges and partial bill)
Payment Received: $130.00
Balance Forward: $89.95
The Charter Bundle: $132.97
Charter High Speed: $5.33
Charter Telephone: $27.98
Adj., Taxes and Fees: $82.00
Total Due by 6/6/08: $669.98

I could figure out everything except the Charter Cable. What was that? Everything else was as the tech explained to me, but what was the Charter Cable?

Well the next page started itemizing the different sections and I got my answer. The Charter Cable charges were for all the movies that were ordered from May 7 through May 11. That’s right – for 5 days! Ryan figured out how to do the Charter On Demand and Pay Per View (a feature that I have yet to figure out). What was he ordering? See the list below:

Alvin and the Chipmunks (which he has on DVD): 12 times $3.99 each
Bee Movie 4 times $3.99 each
Hairspray (which we have on DVD) only once $3.99
Enchanted once $3.99
Shrek the Third (again, on DVD) once $3.99
I Am Legend once $3.99

Those were the tame ones. It gets better:

Baby Doll Escort once $12.95
Girls Gone Wild Panty Raid once $14.95
Springer Sexy Strip once $9.95
Ebony Party Girlz (had to get some women of color) once $9.95
Girls Gone Wild Perfect HD once $14.95
N.a.k.e.d. News TV once $5.95
Something just marked “Adult Movie” 13 times $12.99 each

Total On-Demand and Pay-Per-View: $311.29

Well after I planned out a way to kill my son and get away with it, I told the Charter rep that he was autistic and I didn’t know he could order these movies through his cable box. I thought, like Direct TV, you can only order through the DVR, but I found out the hard way that he can order through the regular box. When I asked what I could do, they told me that I can bring him into the center so that they can determine that he is special needs. I am going to do one better. I will bring him with me, but I will also bring his records with me.

I threatened to remove his cable box, but to keep him from plotting to kill me and his sister, I left the box, and sat down with the manual to figure out how to block purchases, channels and shows by ratings. Unless he figures out my code, that should keep him from causing too much trouble.

I will have to see if they can let me know any other charges he may have made. Remember the bill only showed charges up to May 11. What did he do May 12 – 18? A person could have a heart attack trying to figure that one out!

A Friday Gnashing of Teeth

There was a bit of grumbling among the blogging community this last Tuesday as the Ides of April rolled around and those of us who procrastinated about our taxes, for whatever reason, were under the gun to finally get ‘er done. My beloved, as usual, filed ours early and went about happy as a clam, tooting his horn about all the money we were getting back, while I grumbled, “It was our money to begin with!”

Most of the comments on the April 15 Woe-To-Me-It’s-Tax-Day blog posts were nothing but sympathetic in nature…except for one, from some woman who was chiding the blogger (I wish I could remember which) and those sympathizing with her, by sanctimoniously declaring she’s spent the last 10 years in some gawd-awful, barely-a-speck-on-the-map, third-world country where they don’t have the means to collect taxes so there’s no roads, no hospitals, no electricity, no safe drinking water, no public sanitation, blah-de-blah, ad nauseum, and shouldn’t we all just be ashamed of ourselves for taking those tax-provided luxuries for granted. I guess she must have figured out a way to get on the internet using two cans and some waxed string.

At any rate, I have a rebuttal for Ms. Third World.

I spent the last 7 hours filing sales tax returns, some that are required monthly and some that are required quarterly, for approximately 35 different states. NO TWO of which are the same. Some states require just one return for the whole kit and kaboodle, some require you break your sales down by county or city, and some states require that you file separate returns for each city AND each county you do business in. I do no less than FIVE sales tax returns for the state of Alabama – ALABAMA! – alone, on a monthly basis. You want hospitals and public sanitation? You just come right on up here, sweetie – I’ve got a calculator and a nice sharp pencil just waiting for you – and you can give me your honest opinion on which return is the most confusing to figure out: California, Texas or Hawaii. At this moment I would gladly – GLADLY, I tell ya! – take up residence in a piranha-infested mud puddle smack-dab in the middle of an Amazonian jungle during monsoon season to avoid what I’ve been through today.

There has got to be a wine bottle with my name on it somewhere today.

TGIF and I’m Still Alive

When I moved to Ohio, my husband (then fiancé) put me in charge of the company finances, and when we married this January, he put me in charge of our combined personal finances. Those of you who know me well, when you stop laughing hysterically it’ll dawn on you what complete acts of faith these were. See? I told you. All I can say for sure is, I’m positive he’s not clinically insane.

Anyhoo, today is payday at the office and since I am in charge of the company finances, I am in charge of the payroll (no, my coworkers aren’t real thrilled with the arrangement either, but you have to give them credit – they don’t say much about it). Now, I’d like to point out that while my beloved trusts me with the company finances, this does not extend to the actual business of payroll and all it’s attendant deductions and taxes and direct deposits – we have a payroll company who takes care of these things far more efficiently than I ever could (surprise, surprise). However, I do have the responsibility of providing them with all the information they need to perform these functions, something I do on the internet.

So, today I’m getting ready to print up reports and pass out pay stubs and enter all the pertinent information into our accounting software (which groans softly every time I log in), when I do the first and most important task of the payday routine – I check our bank account to make sure our paychecks were deposited.

You may all now be impressed that I did not fall over dead, a victim of coronary thrombosis, when I saw my husband’s pay deposit, followed by an amount that was MUCH, MUCH LARGER than my usual pay. My first thought was, “Omigod, I made a HUGE mistake and paid myself an exorbitant amount of money due to some subconscious rebellion, or the onset of Alzheimer’s.” My next thoughts were rather vague and unfocused, containing images of me groveling at my husband’s feet, begging forgiveness and promising not to pay myself for the next six months, when I noticed, under this large amount of money, a tiny little sum that was much more inline with my own paycheck. (This all makes sense when you realize that since the deposits were made last night, all of the amounts were identified only with the word “Pending” on the website.)

Then an idea occurred to me, and I scurried into his office, and asked anxiously, “Dear, when you filed our taxes this year, didn’t you have the IRS mail me my check?” To which he replied, “No, they’re supposed to deposit yours like they did mine.”

It took him a few minutes, but he was able to pick me up off the floor where I had collapsed in a boneless heap of relief.

And I do believe that since all that extra money is from my income tax return, I’m entitled to a manicure and pedicure this weekend. Oh, yes I do.